Haley Fohr (Circuit Des Yeux): Interview
“I feel myself transforming, and coming into myself.”
It’s the feeling after a good, long cry. All those emotions spilling out in a burst of energy; the body goes numb and limp. It’s a workout. But it feels good to get it all out, to sacrifice stoicism for humanism. This is perhaps an overconfident but equally adept explanation for the work of Haley Fohr. The 23 year old behind Circuit Des Yeux has poured her soul into three full-length albums, but it’s not all wine and roses for the recent college graduate, who has now been thrust into a world where music is business and business isn’t paying for art. Fohr packed her bags and headed north to Chicago in an effort to prove herself and to start again, discovering the same challenge that plagues most young folks emerging from the academic womb: It’s a cold, harsh world.
Fohr talks once again with TMT, this time about her move, her upcoming 10-inch, and how gender plays a “role” in her life.
How did the last year of school/studies shape your music? Do you find yourself drawing from those last classes and Bloomington?
The last year of college was very hard for me. I was rather alienated from people because of so much academic work, my own musical endeavors, and working in between. Those were full 20-hour days. I wrote and recorded a song called “Helen, You Bitch”. It will be on my next release, a 10”, in February. I recorded it during finals week in my last term. I think that song perfectly represents the environment of university and its psychological effect on me. School has helped me build a great resume, and I am grateful for all the knowledge I have learned. I came from a small town with very little resources in regards to musical outlet. In my mind going to school was my ticket out and into the bigger world. But toward the end there was a lot of resentment. I felt tricked, had, conformed, and absolutely oppressed by the situation. My mind was finished with school in 2010, and I’ve been ready to finish this part of my life for a long time.
What about school “tricked” you? How did it change you or make you conform when it seems you didn’t want to?
Well, for one, I could not afford school and should not have gone. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Going into school, I had a 4-track and knew how to use an internal microphone. But other that I had absolutely zero idea of how to record music, all I knew was that I liked it, and I wanted to learn more about it. But I never really understood “college culture.” I never made many friends and the idea of getting dressed up and going to parties and getting so drunk out of your mind, you don’t know how to get home never appealed to me. I guess I’m just not a social person in that sense. About my 2nd or 3rd year into it I recognized where I was headed.
Although I am thankful and grateful for the knowledge I have learned, I feel like it is a pipe system that spits you out right where the community wants you. I grew up in a middle-waged household in Indiana, and no one in my family could afford to send me to school, especially myself. But what can you do? I’m $50,000 in debt and I want to be a musician, not a 9-5 data entry person. Or, whatever. It is not a secret that the music industry no longer exists and is hardly profitable. I have said many times that I am not interested in commercial music or commercial work. Taking something innovative, beautiful and artistic and turning it towards a market, a demographic, to sell a can of pop, a car, whatever, it doesn’t interest me. But when you’re 18 years old, you don’t think about those kinds of things. I needed out of my environment, and I thought that I was doing a responsible thing. The price of college really is not fair. It is turning into a sort of class divide, I feel. There are absolutely not enough grants or scholarships to fund a culturally diverse and equal post-graduate system. I mean, it is unfair to put a price on knowledge. America has always been about the “land of the free” and equal rights. If it is so, then I think knowledge (college) should be an intuitive addition to the discussion as well.
Did you know that most large-budget artists today have their guitar solos comp’d?! Each note is cut and paste into a rippin’ roarin’ fake solo. My heart sank when I learned that; how awful.
How is life after college treating you? How is it shaping your attitude toward your own music?
Life after college is a struggle for me. I am just trying to stay afloat, keep those bill collectors at bay, and figure out a life style that suits being a musician. I try to stay positive about it and people in the city often recognize my tenacity, which is reassuring. For three years a seed was embedded in my brain that the goal was to find an occupation in music. You know, that music was a J-O-B. And it has taken me 23 years to finally recognize that music is not my occupation, but my religion. I will be broke for probably most of my life, but I will always have to create music. I am pretty appalled by the music business post-college and the “role” women play in that. I have made a very conscious decision that if I am to be in this “industry” or “field” it will be as a creator, whether that means the musician or the engineer; that is how I identify.
Do you have a 9-to-5 job? Are you trying to avoid music as a job now that you’ve discovered its deeper meaning in your life?
I work over 50 hours a week, split between Numero Group and CBA, a bagel-sandwich shop. Things are OK, but I’ve hardly had time to practice my own music and staying afloat on rent is hard. I identify and others identify me as an artist, and that is what I shall pursue. I also recognize the fact that artists will always be struggling. I really need to stop working so much, and just start touring.
What work do you do for Numero Group? Are you stealing Codeine LPs or hiding away in the storage rooms to sneak listens to the catalog? Are the machinations of working at a record label affecting your writing or how you’re actively listening to music (your own or other artists)?
Haha! I am actually stealing Circuit Rider’s deluxe reissue, hanging onto some Codeine etc. I get comped in records, which is very, very nice. I am the tape-transfer person here for now. I generally work with old master reels that these guys bring in. Or vinyl records they score… whichever. It’s nice. I can’t tell you what projects I’m working on because it is all very top secret! They had me sign a form saying that I am not to discuss any of it with anyone! I like the people here, they’re nice. But I mean, it’s a label and it is a business you know, too. I don’t mind my job; I get to listen to awesome, heart-wrenching soul songs, and other lost treasures all day. Not a bad way to spend/waste your time. Doing this sort of thing has been great experience, but the music etc. label work is very separate from my personal endeavors, and lately I’ve been making sure to keep it that way.
Why a move to Chicago?
After finishing up my academics in Bloomington, IN, I felt a comfort that I was not ready to embrace at age 23. Chicago has proved to be a challenge. The size, and resources available, is what brought me here. A few other things brought me here too, but we can’t just lay it all out in the open, now can we? I move much slower than the city, and often miss the natural beauty and simplicity of Indiana.
Does “Helen, You Bitch” signal any new musical direction(s)?
All of my releases previous to Portrait were rather experimental in tone. My music is very cathartic. I’ve been making and releasing music for over five years now and I am realizing my musical patterns, and where the inspiration comes from. This ‘inspiration’ is generally either angst or despair. “Helen, You Bitch” is an angsty tune, 100%. Generally when I feel oppressed and angry my intuition is to be loud, abrasive and hard to handle. I want to lash out, I want to say ‘fuck you!’ and explode whatever I have been bottling up inside. I used to really get off on making people feel uncomfortable. My back catalog of releases like Symphone and Sirenum are all rather unsettling as well. Sometimes I get in a very dark mindset and think “screw humanity” or just such an outsider from the norms, which are all thoughts I’m positive people think at least a few times in their life. But I try not to dwell on these sorts of thoughts, so songs like “Helen, You Bitch” are a good way to say it and then move on.
Are you working on a new album? How will it incorporate what you’ve learned at college?
I have such a creative surge right now. This past year I have recorded around two hours’ worth of music, most of which will never see the light of day. But it shouldn’t. I realize that for me, making an album is a very sacred experience. Creating songs makes me feel complete, but usually the best songs are the songs that present themselves to you when you least expect.
My 10” coming out in February, titled CDY3 on Magnetic South Recordings. Let me give you the low-down on this whole thing:
CDY3 (I believe you saw incarnated at Cataracts Festival last year) was a three-piece band from March 2011 to May 2012. It consisted of Greg Simpson on guitar, Clarke Joyner on drums, and myself on guitar/vocals. I wrote and orchestrated songs and led the band on a SXSW excursion as well as an East Coast tour, among other things. So CDY3 is a full band fronted by Circuit Des Yeux/me. It was a great experience for me to have other people as resources. It really opened me up to improvisation with other musicians, and exploring the idea of trance within live music.
I never really understood ‘college culture.’
The 10-inch is around 20 minutes long, three tracks, and a perfect way to exit the Circuit Des Yeux college era. John Dawson (of Thee Open Sex) is the tracking/mixing engineer, and co-curator [of Magnetic South], and Seth Mahern (of Apache Dropout) does all the design, artwork, and curating, as well. I am very excited for this record because it is Magnetic South’s first vinyl release and all 100% in house. All the artwork, the recording process, the PR, the booking, the assembly is 100% DIY, and that gratification is rather instant. I am a huge DIY advocate, so this is a big step, I think, for both me and my friends. We are bringing something to fruition by the means of only our own hands.
As far as a full-length album, well, that is something I think is starting to show itself right at this moment in my life. But it is a journey I must do alone, and one that has no foreseeable end, so who knows what the result will be and when.
How has the CDY trio shaped the upcoming 10”? Did you find yourself changing song ideas or trying to push a song further than you would by yourself? How has your relationship with Magnetic South influenced the 10-inch?
Well, I want to make something clear. CDY3 and Circuit Des Yeux are 2 different entities. Circuit Des Yeux is a solo project, and will continue to be me, all instruments by me, all songs written, and recorded, by me etc. CDY3 is the first of what will be a life full of human/band collaboration, in which I write the material, bring it to the group, and we, you know, we perform it and meld it into something that is communal. I’m not sure if anyone will ever get the distinction, but in my mind, that’s how it lies. CDY3 plays new songs, some are written specifically for the band, while other songs are interpretations of previously released songs.
I said earlier that my music stems from angst and despair. For me, despair is a singular feeling that generally arises in solitude. A lot of the songs on Portrait were written during times of despair and I think that obviously translates. But it is hard for me to play a show and hone those same feelings. You know ‘Show time! Get bummed!’ I know that sounds silly, but you can’t push that sort of feeling, it falls upon you. Angst is very easy for me to channel right now. Maybe it’s because of my age, or situation, or who knows, but when I am on stage I feel the fire.
The CDY3 trio (and CDY4, which is the 2nd reincarnation of the live band right now, featuring other members) gives me fuel for that fire. But it is an open-ended situation. I don’t say, “No, no, no play that note, not THAT note!” I play the song, and I say, “This is how it should sound, this is the feeling” and we go from there. I’m interested and open to people bringing their own voice to the songs, to an extent.
This 10-inch was not in the running at all to be released, ever. The people at Magnetic South 100% inspired and pushed this 10-inch. I lived in Bloomington for two years before I really settled into things, and became great friends with Seth and John. I formed the trio because I needed something new and I wanted to connect with people, and music is the only way I know how. We began playing out and Seth, I believe, was my biggest supporter. Before leaving for SXSW, he insisted that we record with John, and we spent a day doing that. We came in, set up, and recorded a couple songs, which were initially going to be a 7-inch.
At the end of the session John pulled a smart head-engineer call and busted my balls saying, “OK, why don’t y’all just go down there and fucking jam? Can’t we get like, a jam, you know for ‘the lost CDY box set,’ ” as a joke, and we went down and did it. And that is the jam you hear on “Helen, You Bitch.” Seth and I played the same SXSW showcase a few weeks later and he offered me up anything I wanted. He said “Well, we’ve got all this material, how about a 12-inch?” and I immediately said “10-inch!” because, well, I enjoy some self-sabotaging in the music industry and grew up a noise head, so I love those private-press, small-count, ridiculous-release styles.
You spoke earlier about women’s position in music. What role do you believe women play in the music business? How do you go about avoiding those roles? What do you do that goes against those roles?
Women in the music business are a rare commodity. It seems to me, as a musician, many women become objectified or have to objectify themselves to sell records and create a fan base. Sex is constant on the mind of humans and animals, which is a shame. […] It is also hard for me to play music with men because more often than not their intentions do not lie in the music. So I’ve always been very cautious of who I incorporate in my world of music. How do I go about avoiding these situations? I mean, I try to, but it’s inevitable. I kick everyone out of the car, I sit in the driver seat, I take control. I can do it all and I can be authoritative about it. Sometimes I really do wish I could be a person, before a woman, because it gets really annoying sometimes. I’ve toured multiple times and will continue to tour alone, and that is also something that is a gamble. Don’t get me wrong, if someone wants to give me resources because I am a woman, I’m going to take them. But the goal here is equality and mutual respect.
Most of the women my age I went to high school with are settling down. They have children, they are in love, they are buying a house etc. … I’m not ready to settle down. I want to stir it up, you know!
Having difficulty working with men… How did that shape your experience with CDY3?
Generally the people I work with, both male and female within music, are people I have known for a long time and share a deep trust. Clarke was one of the first people I met when I moved to Bloomington. We were roommates for a year or so. Greg and I played in an improv group for a little while a year or so before I asked him to play with me as well. I think I’ve got some really weird ideas about sexuality and men. I had a few really strange things happen to me during my most developmental stages of life that I’ve been thinking back to, I guess that could be the cause of the way I think about certain things. There isn’t any really big idea behind it all, or feminist statement with CDY3. Generally, I just have so much aggression and anger about being a woman, and not wanting to be one, most of the time. Having men backing me up, sometimes I get even angrier and I take it all out on my guitar usually. I’ll end up breaking a bottle and using it all over the place or just start screaming at the top of my lungs. The CDY3 EP is very indicative of what our live shows were like, only maybe the recordings are a little more contained.
Is there a means or attitude you adapt to get around being treated as a “woman playing guitar”? Is there part of your performance or your recorded output that is a push back against that caveman instinct to paint people by gender roles?
I felt a little pinned down after Portrait and people referring to me as a singer. I’ve gotten asked and offered collaborations where people just want me to sing, or people wanting to back me up with their own instruments and suggesting, “Why don’t you just sing?” It’s been a great experience, I like to sing, but man am I sick of hearing my voice!
I love to play the guitar. I don’t know how really, at all, but that’s why I love it. I can do whatever I want and not know or think if it’s the wrong or right way. I get a lot of compliments about my guitar playing, and I take pride in it. It’s raunchy and weird and it’s just how I play, you know?
I don’t think I’ve been fighting any gender roles, but I do recognize the norm and I don’t know if I fall within those parameters. Most of the women my age I went to high school with are settling down. They have children, they are in love, they are buying a house etc. Or not even women, just people my age, and I’m not ready to settle down. I want to stir it up, you know! I used to be very into the idea of higher learning via higher art and progressive, challenging sounds, but I have accepted that some caveman aspects still run deep in humans. Like a drum beat. People love music that their heart can pound along to or that they can have sex to; a rhythmic pattern, something familiar to fall back on. I fought against that for a long time with Circuit Des Yeux, but CDY3 accepts this primal attitude for both women, and men.
What do you find appalling about the music business?
Music has been a strange terrain for me, always magical and exotic. You know, sitting in front of your record player as a young teen, and realizing that people can make such radical sounds, and say such radical things, it’s otherworldly. The music business is a business, a market, and I just have never been able to sit well with that. I mean, money makes the world go round and round, but the best records were made for free, or on a shitty cassette recorder or something, you know? Money in general really boggles my mind lately. I guess I am just an advocate of music staying in the art realm of the world. I have seen friends and musicians get torn apart by the music business. Signing away rights to songs and having the juices of inspiration slowly drain from their bodies until they are nothing more than a shell of a person with a check in their hand. I don’t want to do that. The behind-the-scenes engineering was really a bubble bust for me, too. Did you know that most large-budget artists today have their guitar solos comp’d?! Each note is cut and paste into a rippin’ roarin’ fake solo. My heart sank when I learned that; how awful.
Speaking of which, you’ve done some production work for some Bloomington bands (Thee Open Sex). How did that begin and how is it different than working on your own material?
Well, I was in Bloomington for a good two years before (finally!) running into John, Seth, etc. through shows. I remember Sonny (from Apache Dropout), and I did a collaborative duo set one night, and maybe that was actually how I got involved in meeting everyone. You know, you play a show then someone says, “Great job, come check out this show” etc. and it all snow balls. Then, you know, all we all do is music. I mean, I was doing school, but it worked out a bit because I received free studio time.
So I had (Thee) Open Sex come in a couple times during school, and we recorded a few jams. I like recording other people’s material, it’s nice. To help your friends out, or feel like you’re providing them a service that helps something they really care about come to fruition. At first I was kind of afraid to be radical with my mixing/producing on anyone’s music but my own. But now that I’m out of school and am breathing on my own, I’m kind of just *going for it* you know. I mean, I’m also gaining more confidence the longer I do this. I’ve only been producing etc. for other people for three years. But I’m helping out at a couple studios, and I am feeling myself being able to hone in on the craft of sound a bit more precisely. I’m helping a friend record a 7-inch and I have to say, the guitar solo has to be the beefiest sounding thing I’ve done yet. It’s exciting, to just work that part of my brain too. The connection I’ve made with the people involved with Magnetic South will be an everlasting one, I’d like to think, at least.